AOL recently announced that they are officially opening up their immensely popular instant messaging platform to the developer community and enabling a new generation of AIM-powered IM clients/services. According to Kevin Conroy, executive vice president of AOL Media Networks:
The next wave of opportunities will come as a result of allowing developers to innovate. AIM is the original social network. We’re looking for ways for consumers to be able to extend their social networks via an already popular platform.
This is an absolutely brilliant position and pretty damn significant. AOL Instant Messenger boasts a community of 63M users. That is more users than the wildly popular – and closed – social network, mySpace, which currently has 56M users. By integrating IM functionality with other online services (blogging, photo sharing, mapping, etc) developers can create a host of powerful, cross-functional, services that leverage and extend the power of their existing social networks. More significantly, perhaps, is that if AOL can manage to become the de facto instant messaging/social network on the emerging service-oriented web, they will have scored a big win.
There are a couple catches however, that will have to be addressed over time. Most notably, the AIM Developer FAQ states:
Developers are not permitted to build Custom Clients that are multi-headed (I think they meant threaded) or interoperable with any other IM network.
That requirement is no footnote and means that – for now – we still not at the point where we can easily exchange instant messages across the major networks. Suffice to say, that is a huge impediment to developing a truly pervasive and ubiquitous computing environment. Also, I wonder how this will affect folks like Meebo and their competition.
Although there is still a ways to go, this move will undoubtedly herald the beginning of a more open social software space. Incumbent social network services such as Friendster and LinkedIn will be forced to reconsider their current “closed” positions and maybe even gradually open up as a result of increased competitive pressures. Those services that desperately hang on to the Web 1.0 “do-it-yourself” mentality, however, will probably go the way of their dot-com predecessors – buhbyes.
Regardless, I am impressed that the folks at AOL are moving in this direction and am truly excited to watch the dynamics of the social software space change in response to the announcement.